Tag Archives: baseball

Baseball and Civil Rights

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Last week on Wednesday April 15th was Jackie Robinson day, celebrating the 68th anniversary of the first modern day African-American to play in Major League Baseball (MLB) (there had been a small number of others prior to the current MLB professional system). Like most of us baseball fans, I love seeing all players wearing #42 in his honor, this being the only number retired by MLB as a whole but allowed to be worn on this one day a year. Jimmy Rollins, shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers, recently wrote about what a thrill it would be to wear that number while playing for Jackie’s Dodgers, an experience he has for the first time this year (log in likely needed for article).

Jackie Robinson has been my hero since I was in elementary school, either the 4th or 5th grade. I read Stealing Home: The Story of Jackie Robinson, a Scholastic Biography by Barry Denenberg aimed at kids my age. I don’t remember how I came upon it, though being a big baseball fan it wouldn’t have been hard for me to pick it up seeing it at the library or book store. The first thing that really caught my imagination was that thought of stealing home, such a lost art of the game in the early ‘90s (and on through today), having seen that iconic picture of him hook sliding into home against Johnny Pramesa in 1952, his hat flying off and his teammate watching on, filling me with immense excitement.

But as for so many of us, Jackie’s story has inspired me immeasurably. Having to be yelled at, taunted, sworn at, thrown at, spat at, ridiculed, hated, spiked, received multiple death threats to him and his family while being completely alone in this endeavor and not being able to give into his natural instincts of fighting back or responding brings me to tears whenever I think about it. I love him for his courage, for working towards something that was bigger than him (or baseball), for being willing to go through all of that. He was truly amazing.

These experiences were shared by many more than just Jackie, both in baseball and outside. But generations of African-American struggle were personified and epitomized in him. He obviously prepared and foreshadowed the remaining civil rights movement in this country, providing more liberty and opportunity for the descendants of those who were physically enslaved by allowing other courageous men and women to free themselves and all minorities from societal enslavement. It all could have blown up if he had behaved differently.

The thing that really sold this was that Jackie could play; if he couldn’t, none of the other stuff would have mattered. He has also been credited with starting a revolution in how the game is played. Those from the Negro Leagues who came to MLB after him furthered this free-styling, risk-taking, hard-running, slap-and-dash method of play, what would commonly be referred to today as small-ball. Buck O’Neill, the late great spokesman and advocate for greater knowledge about and appreciation for the Negro Leagues, describes it as something close to jazz. Many, myself included, would call this a much funner way to play and watch baseball. “There was a lot wrong with the world, but we weren’t sad, man. We had the time of our lives,” said Buck O’Neill about those days.

I have also had much more interest in the Negro Leagues in recent months. Part of it is because of my love for Jackie, part of it is because I travel to Kansas City a few times a year and get to visit the Negro Leagues Museum, part of it is because if you’ve ever listened to Buck O’Neill how can you NOT love the Negro Leagues! It’s characters, it’s history, it’s BASEBALL is full of wonder and excitement. Its “separate but equal” place in baseball history should not be forgotten nor neglected. “We overcame, see. That’s the lesson of the Negro Leagues,” said Buck O’Neill on another occasion.

Both Jackie and the Negro Leagues led to not only more African-American players, but also many Latino players, who have left their own indelible mark on baseball. Roberto Clemente, who had the 60th anniversary of his first game played on April 17th and a huge pioneer in his own right for the racism he faced and overcame, chose number 21 because he hoped he could be “half the man” that Jackie Robinson (#42) was. Robinson Cano, by far the best 2nd baseman in MLB today, was named after Jackie because that is who his father’s hero was. Many other Latino ballplayers now participate in what we greedily refer to as “our” national pastime, and do so with many similar challenges, though to a far lesser extent, than what Jackie experienced.

But the best way that civil rights and baseball intersect is an experience Joe Posnanski had with Buck O’Neill while writing a book about Buck near the end of his life. Buck had just spoken at a press conference in Washington, D.C. to request national designation to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. Buck needed to take a break in a backroom after speaking. Here is an excerpt from The Soul of Baseball (one of my favorite books, and definitely one of the best baseball books ever written):

“’Hold on for a second, hold on,’ Buck said, and he pointed at a television nearby. ‘You know something funny? Look at that television. You know, if the Willie Mays catch was on right now—the one from the World Series—everyone would stop and watch it.’

“Everybody around stopped and listened to Buck. He was talking about the catch Mays made at the Polo Grounds in the 1954 World Series, the one where he turned his back and raced toward the wall on a long ball hit by Vic Wertz. Mays ran full speed to a spot and somehow caught the ball over his head without even looking back. His hat flew off. And then, in one motion, Mays whirled and threw the ball back to the infield. Jack Brickhouse, the announcer, screamed that it must have looked like an optical illusion to a lot of people. More than fifty years later, most people would say it was the greatest catch ever made.

“’How many times have we all seen that catch?’ Buck asked. ‘And yet, if Willie Mays was up there on the television, this whole place would come to a stop.’

“’If Willie was up there, people would stop making laws. They would stop running. They would stop arguing about little things. Or big things. No Democrat or Republican, no black and white, no North or South. Everyone would just stop, watch the TV, watch Willie Mays make that catch. That’s baseball, man.’”

That’s what baseball means to civil rights. Jackie sliding into home against Yogi Berra—the wonder of baseball and nothing else—still represents that to me.

Don’t Call Me Shirley

Babe Ruth Wearing Crown

Just over a century ago in 1918, 30 year old Hippo Vaughn won the pitching triple-crown, leading the National League in earned run average (ERA), strikeouts, and wins. Despite it being considered the “dead ball era” due to severe low scoring environments, his ERA+ was 159, meaning that he was 59% better than league average as he led the Chicago Cubs to the World Series that year. One year before this tremendous season he made history by throwing a double no-hitter with Fred Toney of the Cincinnati Reds. Both men retired all 27 batters through 9 innings, before Vaughn’s Cubs lost in the 10th inning. All of this together has led some to claim that he was the best left-handed pitcher in the National League, and maybe all of baseball, during the years of World War I.

Despite this amazing career, one thing sticks out to me more than any other: his name. He received this nickname midway through his playing career due to immense size and lumbering walk. In many ways it was an unfortunate nickname, and it is not known whether he found it offensive. Like it or not, it has obviously become part of his legacy. Many fewer remember Fred Toney than Hippo, because Fred isn’t quite as exciting a moniker.

Baseball history has provided many wonderful and well-known nicknames: Bumpus Jones, Lefty Grove, Dodo Bird, Cool Papa Bell, Catfish Hunter, Three-Finger Brown, Preacher Roe, and of course, Babe Ruth, to name just a few. There are numerous baseball nicknames, both then and now, that poke a little fun at the player (Yogi Berra, Wee Willie Keeler), describe some of his skills (Hammerin’ Hank Aaron, Brooks “the Vacuum Cleaner” Robinson), reference his ethnicity or nationality (the Hebrew Hammer, the Mexecutioner), make a play on his name (A-Rod), or even the occasional innuendo (the Big Unit, bar far my favorite baseball nickname of all time). The main thing that is missing in today’s nicknames, however, is the cognomen that becomes completely linked as a part of an individual’s moniker (such as the above mentioned Babe, Preacher, or Yogi). What’s happened to these nicknames?

While many current players have been given silly sobriquets, the majority of them are more akin to the simple, cultural shorthand names along the lines of A-Rod. The mind simply cannot create any less of a fallow appellation. Even the better nicknames, such as Country Breakfast (Billy Butler) or Kung Fu Panda (Pablo Sandoval), while much more creative and fun, still lack the identity-defining title. If George Ruth requested a reservation, few would notice. Even the baseball-centric nickname Sultan of Swat would draw more confused looks than excitement. If the name Babe Ruth were given, mountains would move to get him at your restaurant or hotel.

So why do we not have these anymore? I wish I had an inimitable answer, though the likely rejoinder is as with so many others nowadays: it’s the internet, stupid. A century ago, the world of newspaper barons holding a metropolitan monopoly on the daily rag allowed for few places for a player’s name to be experienced. Most of these distinguishing designations originated from either newspaper beat writers or teammates, though either of these origins would find its way into the public consciousness through a printed daily. It then became a ubiquitous identifier for the player, now known to all who may have an interest. The internet has now created so many sources of information on a player that few of the dozens (hundreds?) of nicknames given will stick. There are many great ones being created, but few catch on. Is this a worthy price to pay for internet accessibility? Absolutely. It’s just a shame that there may not be another Hippo coming along anytime soon.